According to the latest aggregation of opinions on Rotten Tomatoes, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men hasn’t fared very well with most of my critical brethren. But I find myself inclined to give it an appreciative thumb’s up, if not a full-throated roar of approval. And not just because, as a minor-league history buff, I am reflexively fascinated by accounts of efforts to retrieve art masterpieces plundered by Adolf Hitler’s minions during World War II.
Clooney’s movie – which really makes me want to take another look at the documentaries The Rape of Europa and The Architecture of Doom – is an intelligent and entertaining mix of stranger-than-fiction fact and respectfully plausible invention, adapted by Clooney and co-scriptwriter Grant Heslov from Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, And the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It’s a tale of unlikely heroes – art experts, most of them middle-aged American guys, charged with locating and saving stolen artworks even as war rages in Europe – and while it rarely crackles with suspense, it never fails to engross.
As director, Clooney displays uncommon generosity and conspicuous good taste, giving most of the juicy scenes and colorful dialogue to his co-stars – Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are among the notables performing far beyond the call of duty – and providing carefully calibrated comedic touches without ever undermining the seriousness of his true-life drama.
A few reviewers have described The Monuments Men as an old-fashioned wartime adventure, and I wouldn’t disagree with that appraisal. Keep in mind, though, that there’s more than one fashion that’s old. While some may liken it to a Hollywood crowd-pleaser of 1940s vintage, I thought Clooney's movie was structured and paced more like some episodic, star-studded international co-production of the 1950s or ‘60s. Oddly enough, there were times when it reminded me a lot of Carl Foreman’s 1963 anti-war drama The Victors – particularly when, as though taking his cue from Foreman’s film, Clooney makes potently ironic use of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Not that that's such a bad thing, you understand.
By the way: Just in case you’re interested, here (at the 3:45 mark) is how Foreman did it.